John Hastings is “Pale Nomad: Road Warrior”
John Hastings sits at the bar in a small pub in the town of Pontypridd, Wales. His gangly, innocuous frame leans heavily on the wooden bar as the bartender passionately spiels the local features and attractions of this quaint town. The man grows more animated with John’s encouraging nods of interest before continuing with a story of the town’s history. After all, it’s not often he gets a visit from such a seemingly curious man as John Hastings, let alone a comic hailing all the way from Canada.
At just 27 years old, John’s prodigious experience has made him wise beyond his years. His comprehension now allows him to identify with the concepts appertaining to the biggest names in comedy. The mentality of Chris Rock utterly engrosses him.
“Chris will bomb for an hour if it means developing just one new joke,” says John. It’s a mindset which has engrained itself into John’s psyche while he continues expanding his superlative act.
While some may doubt John’s counterintuitive attitude towards bombing, his formidable credentials show he rarely does. The Canadian Organization of Campus Activities (the gatekeeping organization of lucrative university and college shows) named John “Comedian of the Year” in 2012. He’s won the “Best Newcomer Award” at Just For Laughs, was a finalist in the San Francisco Comedy Festival, and his first solo 60-minute show “John Hastings: UnRelentless,” was well received at the Laughing Horse Free Fringe at the Edinburgh Festival. Most interestingly, John will be inaugurating Iceland as the first Canadian comic to perform a weeklong tour later this February.
Born in Ottawa, John’s a long way from home. However, over his six-and-half year stand up career spanning two continents, countless towns, and thousands of shows, John’s learned what it takes to deliver a stellar stand up show; identifying with the everyman…but first he must show he’s one of them. It’s one of the not-so-famous dictums John swears by; “standup is like giving a tour of your home; you have to show them the living room before you showing them what’s in the trunk under your stairs.” This type of local information, as John has learned, can be conveniently cajoled from the barkeep of the most popular bar in insert-town-here.
For tonight’s one-nighter show in the sleepy town of Pontypridd, John’s driven three hours West from his rented flat in London, England, the mecca for developing comedians, rivaling New York City. Although his pale complexion and piercing blue eyes are textbook traits of a native Englishmen, John’s only been in the U.K. for less than a cumulative year. He’s been told his only unrelatable characteristic (apart from his Canadian “accent”), is his differing word appropriations for European terms, (ie. windscreen vs. windshield) which occasionally stifles a joke’s punch. The reason John can play to nearly any crowd is because his material resonates through personable storytelling.
That night, John takes to the stage with his local joke arsenal before launching into his regular set. He kills.
Talking with locals is more John’s natural tendency than it is a deliberate strategy. Yet, beneath John’s friendly demeanor lurks the fundamental identity of the traditional standup comic: a true warrior in nomadic pursuit of success. John’s journey to the picturesque Pontypridd began years ago, an ocean away, in Montreal, Quebec.
In 2006, while in his final year of theatre school at Concordia University, John saw his first live comedy show and immediately caught the bug. Inspired by the experience, John called in weekly to Montreal’s Comedy Works for an open mic spot; his persistence earning him a slot later that May. On the night of his premiere performance, fitting to John’s destined success, the show’s host was Sugar Sammy, the now-famous Montreal comedy powerhouse recently named by the Hollywood Reporter as “one of the top ten comedic talents in the world.” After that night, John became a regular on Montreal’s open mic circuit and, like many of his peers, began his own comedy room in the city to gain invaluable stage time.
“Comedy was really the only option for me so I strove for it.”
- John Hastings
The conditions of Montreal’s comedy scene during this period gave John a developmental boon. There were only around 25 or 30 comics around Montreal, of them Deanne Smith, Christophe Davidson, and Ali Hassan. Club owners needed more performers, quickly, so encouraged up-and-coming talent to hussle and learn the skills needed to control a weekend room.
Soon the advantages offered by Montreal’s limited comedy scene soon became the force majeure of John’s developmental plateau, shouldering him to seek bigger opportunities outside of Montreal. He began doing gigs in Toronto and Ottawa, two cities with domineering comedy scenes which have produced some of Canada’s biggest names like Gerry Dee and Jon Dore, respectively. It was after John performed a guest spot in Ottawa’s Yuk Yuk’s when the club owner, Howard Wagman, sat him down and recommended he meet with the unofficial CEO of Canadian stand up comedy, Mark Breslin, in Toronto. After several trips, meetings and showcase sets, John was signed to the official Yuk Yuk’s roster…and that meant traveling. A lot. With gigs anywhere from Thunderbay to Northern Alberta to St. Johns, Newfoundland, John learned the importance of ‘the road.’
“I think the road makes comics,” says John. “You have to perform in front of people with no sensibility that is yours. You have to go to a small town where they won’t get your jokes about the subway or Facebook. They work in a factory, their wife just yelled at them, and their daughter just brought home the bass player of an REO Speedwagon coverband. They want to laugh, and they want to laugh now.”
Between John’s sporadic road gigs, true to his nomadic fashion, he still had no permanent abode. He remained drifting between Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal to accumulate the exhaustive amount of stage time required to feed his ever-peaking progress, yet still fell short. It was only when Hastings chatted with Ron Josol, a fellow young comic revered in the Toronto scene, who divulged that comics in Toronto have the opportunity to perform every night of the week.
So, in July of 2009, three years after his first performance, John moved to Toronto and immediately felt the transition to be a a step backward. He left his reputable post as a regular in Montreal’s scene to become a small fish in a big pond. Yet, John once again found himself an adversary to the wild beast of unknown scene; his favorite territory. With the exception of Christmas and a select few occasions, John performed wherever and as often as he could- nearly every day over a year and half- much to the dismay of his then-girlfriend.
“I remember getting up from her family dinners to go do an open mic at the Fox and the Fiddle,” he laughs. “It’s a great way to hone your skills, and I think it’s the only real way to progress. It really accelerates your abilities because instead of just playing to certain rooms, you have to go out and scrap to find rooms and hustle.”
“John’s the hardest working guy I know. His confidence simply controls the room. The Toronto scene needs him. He’s a shining example to why people should be doing stand up.”
- Matt O’Brien, Comedian (“Best Stand Up” LA Comedy Festival)
Johns commitment was recognized by his peers and he soon joined the ranks of the next wave of comics coming out of Toronto. His contemporaries included Dom Pare, Alex Pavone, Mark Debonis, and Matt O’Brien (above). John had his role models as well; he looked up to guys like Dom Pare (known for his ruthless honesty both on and off the stage) because Dom was such a stickler for a good premise and joke. After watching his set, Dom would give the blunt feedback John needed to hear like “you could do better than that last joke,” and more. His peers became an integral block in the creation of his art. In fact, John both learned from his peers while promoting them through interviews over his 83 episode run of the John Hastings Podcast.
“You become challenged by your peers. You have to be as good as them, because maybe they’re working harder than you and it’s time to up your game,” says John.
The stepping stones of his career and development brought into focus the advice shared by national professionals such as Derek Edwards and Mike Wilmont. John knew the importance of disciplined writing, but it only hit home when Derek said “writing solves all the problems.” John came to understood that because he was performing so frequently, he must constantly be generating work to avoid being jaded and tired of your own material.
“You have to treat it like a job,” he says before continuing, “which kind of sucks because it takes all the sex, drugs, and rock and roll out of it. Otherwise, it’s easy to become one of those road dog comics driving from ocean to ocean, wearing leather jackets, chomping on cigarettes. You just always have to be expanding on your act.”
The aggressive pace of John’s development was exceeding that which could be offered by the Canadian scene. There just weren’t anymore big ponds to outgrow. He desperately needed something to take his act to the next level: time, something so often spent on dreaded day jobs just to stay afloat.
“I always looked at Comedy as the way to make money…which is a stupid statement to make, especially in Canada,” says John.
He heard rumours of greener pastures across the pond in the United Kingdom. It’s an ideal environment; working the countless pubs and clubs across the collective U.K. while earning a comic’s standard income of ‘more than a teacher, but less than a doctor.’ John knew what he had to do.
He bought a plane ticket and left Canada. With no real contacts or leads, John once again found himself an adversary to the wild beast of unknown scene; the comedy nomad’s true and only home.
“I just hit the ground,” explains John. “It’s old-school salesmanship. You get on the street, and you start knocking on doors.”
Sure enough, he began getting spots and performing for locals. John explains that no matter where comics perform, whether at a small open mic for 30 people or a weekend show of 300, crowds will be actively listening. People wont’ be texting, they came to listen to jokes. However, if the comedian isn’t delivering, they’ll let him know. Though, he welcomes the tougher crowd citing “that just makes you stronger.”
“Having John Hastings in England is a good thing for Toronto comics…because I’ve never met a comic who did more shows in a single night. It finally gives the rest of us some stage time.”
- Mark Debonis, Comedian (Yuk Yuk’s Great Canadian Laugh Winner)
John’s spent his career honing his craft in the small pubs, clubs and theatres across North America and the U.K. His discipline to both writing and performing surpasses many comedians, many of whom aren’t ashamed to admit it. Many comedians see that becoming a consummate standup is only a stepping stone to attaining one’s own TV show or being featured on the silver screen. John’s different- he aspires for something beyond fame.
“I don’t have an urge to be on television or in the moving pictures,” John says. He pauses, then adds “I think I’m broken,” laughingly. “I just want to be a stand up.”
See John this week at Yuk Yuk’s on Richmond St.
Wednesday, Jan. 2, 8:00pm – Info & Tix
Thursday, Jan. 3, 8:00pm – Info & Tix
Friday, Jan. 4, 8:00pm and 10:30pm Info & Tix
Saturday, Jan. 5, 8:00pm and 10:30pm Info & Tix
Sunday, Jan. 6, 8:00pm Info & Tix
Follow John @TheJohnHastings